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Coercive control is about power - but there’s more to it than that

The ultimate threat perceived by these abusers is that the partner being controlled will meet somebody else, thus engineering their escape

In the recent distressing case in Ireland in which a man abandoned his two-year-old daughter on the road at night to punish her mother, one point struck me as very telling, apart from the sheer awfulness of it.

This is that the father made at least 30 phone calls to the mother when she was out socialising (by arrangement, leaving him in charge).

This kind of behaviour is a common sign of coercive control. Meeting friends, especially where people are having fun, threatens the control of the coercive partner. It gives a glimpse of life away from the controller. (I am talking here, and below, in general terms and not about this specific case).

The ultimate threat is that the partner who is being controlled will meet somebody else – and those who control their partners are convinced, to an extreme extent, that this could happen.


Moreover, the pals the partner meets for a few drinks are enough to send the controlling partner into overdrive. The pals might even be encouraging their friend to get away.

Text after text after text, or call after call, is one way to convince the partner that going out with friends just isn’t worth the hassle. Gradually, the person becomes isolated, maybe without even noticing each step in the process.

To me, that deluge of texts is a big red flag, and anybody to whom it is happening in the early stages of a relationship should take heed and consider getting out while they can.

A recent post, Recognising the Signs of Coercive Control on, is worth a read for anybody concerned with this issue. It quotes psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, who sees loss of ownership as a major aspect of control. “Your money is no longer yours; your time is no longer yours; your space is no longer yours; your body is no longer yours. You begin to have less and less say over your life, your time, and how you spend it.”

Coercive control is about power, but there’s also something more than that: it may, it seems to me, involve a twisted terror of abandonment

Removing the controlled person’s freedom to act with autonomy is a key part of this. Controlling money and taking away freedom of movement are common features of such behaviour.

Another tactic is to convince the partner to stay away from family events – this deepens their isolation.

This is all apart from physical beatings, which are often part of what is going on also.

Coercive control is about power, but there’s also something more than that: it may, it seems to me, involve a twisted terror of abandonment – twisted because the controller sees their own feelings as giving them the right to restrict and, perhaps, to take the other person’s life.

I don’t think that really explains it though, because I’ve never heard an explanation that makes complete sense.

The Guardian recently quoted JK Rowling as saying that when she was writing her Harry Potter books, her then-husband would not allow her a key to the front door. He let her leave for work, but when she came home he searched her handbag. He was suspicious of her writing because he suspected it would give her the means to get away if the book was a success. After he hid the manuscript, she began smuggling a few pages out at a time to photocopy them and locked the copies in a workplace cupboard. She only smuggled a few at a time so he would not suspect what was going on.

I mention this because it illustrates the utter irrationality of this control, which often defeats its own purpose. The partner looks to get away and is even killed, perhaps the children too, just for making the attempt.

The Women’s Aid website has an excellent section on coercive control (it can be found under the “I need help now” menu), including advice on gathering evidence people being controlled should collect, if they can, if they wish to contact gardaí.

Men subjected to this treatment can contact Men’s Aid Ireland at The website has more on coercive control in the FAQ section.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Acceptance – Create Change and Move Forward; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (